Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

Debate on Dyslexia 14.12.11

Sharon responded on behalf of the Labour Opposition to a Westminster Hall debate on dyslexia.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I fear that the vote in the House has caused disruption for many people who intended to be in this debate, but what we lack in quantity we will make up for between us in quality.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) for securing this timely debate. As he said, I was at the meeting of the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties at which he resolved to apply for this debate. His success in doing so gives us a great opportunity to take forward the discussion we were having in that meeting, along with the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), the noble Lords Addington and Clement-Jones and representatives from the main dyslexia organisations. We will continue that debate here today, and I hope we will receive responses from the Minister to some of our concerns.

I want to record my thanks to the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, Dyslexia Action, the British Dyslexia Association and Patoss for not just the excellent briefings they provided in advance of the debate but for the work they do day in and day out to unlock the world of words for dyslexic people, particularly children and young adults. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North gave an excellent speech, which drew on the many concerns that those organisations have raised with us about the current direction of travel in the education system—concerns shared by anyone with an interest in helping young people with special educational needs get the most from life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) commented on the thinking that dyslexia, rather than being a disability, is to do with a very wide reading ability spectrum, along which most of society would fall. He knows that I disagree with him on that point. There is a huge amount of evidence that proves that dyslexia is a very real and significant disability, especially at the extreme end of the spectrum where it goes way beyond a problem with learning to read and affects memory and organisational ability.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure that we have all come across friends and relatives who have slight spelling disabilities, particularly with unusual names and foreign words. At that end of the spectrum, we are not talking about an inability to read. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that there is a difference between those of us who fairly quickly pick up names and foreign words and those who do not, and that is, I believe, the thin end of the dyslexia wedge.

Mrs Hodgson: I agree. My son is severely dyslexic, and it affects not just his spelling and writing capability. Dyslexics are often much slower in learning to speak, and when my son was younger the condition affected his speech. He was three before he first said a word that was understandable to others—I could understand his grunts and moans a bit earlier. He has very bad memory problems and organisational ability; dyslexia really does affect a large part of his life. My daughter has been a bad speller most of her life—she is 16 now and her spelling is getting a bit better—but in no way would I say that she has dyslexia as I know it. They do say, however, that the condition runs in families, so she might fall somewhere on the spectrum if she was ever tested.

Graham Stringer: I follow the people who do not take my hon. Friend’s view, such as Diane McGuiness and other academics who gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, but I was not trying to make the point that there is no complete scientific agreement that dyslexia exists. I was saying that having carefully considered the definition and how it was applied, the Committee came to the conclusion, which I will repeat, that the

“definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.”

The Committee was concerned that because of the use of the term, people who had difficulties learning to read and who were not diagnosed were being discriminated against.

Mrs Hodgson: Obviously, I am not an expert in the diagnosis of dyslexia, but there are people who are, and when they do the various tests what comes out is something called a spiky chart. Where there is a huge disparity between performance in non-verbal reasoning and other tests of intelligence on the one hand and reading and writing ability on the other, it becomes very obvious that someone is dyslexic. If someone has not very good reading skills but equally does not have high levels of intelligence, they have a flatter profile. Perhaps at the lower edge of the spectrum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North has said—this is getting into a very technical conversation—diagnosis might be difficult and there might be blurred edges, but as we progress along the spectrum I do not think that the edges are blurred. Again, however, I am not an expert.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend touched on dyslexia being an inherited characteristic, and I am sure that we all know families in which a parent is dyslexic and one or more of their children is. Two male friends of mine who are graduates have three children each, and dyslexia has affected only one child in each family, with that child having a serious spelling disability. All six children went to university and graduated.

Mrs Hodgson: The chair of our all-party group, the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is dyslexic, and I believe that his two sons are also. Yes, it is a trait that runs in families, and that is recognised.

Most Members here today know of my personal interest in this issue, as a mother of a severely dyslexic son. My son was unfortunately not diagnosed or helped anywhere near soon enough. The Minister also knows very well most of the concerns that have been raised today, because we have already had debates on the matter and have been in correspondence recently. I thank her for her comprehensive response to my first letter, and I look forward to her response to my reply, which she might preview today.

I wrote that first letter because I had started to see how various changes in education policy could, when taken together, start to put children with certain special educational needs at a disadvantage, and I used dyslexia to illustrate my point because that was the SEN I had personal experience of and knew best—I could see how the changes would have affected my son if he had been coming up to the start of key stage 4 now. I have no doubt that the potential effect is not desired at all by the Minister or her officials, and that it is one of those unintended consequences that we sometimes do not see unless we are looking at something from the outside, or until the effect has begun to manifest itself in statistics.

There are a number of issues on which I will touch briefly. My hon. Friend has mentioned many of them already. It is best in most narratives to start at the beginning, and in this case the beginning is initial teacher training. Without teachers in our classrooms who can spot the signs of dyslexia and teach in a way that does not alienate dyslexic children, we will continue to fail those children. I know from bitter experience that many teachers have a woefully inadequate knowledge of dyslexia. It was not until my son was nine that he came across a teacher who could spot what I now understand were glaringly obvious signs, and even then, that was probably because her own son had dyslexia as well, as I later found out. Too many children in their early years of school life are going through the motions without being noticed and supported. Like other communication difficulties, that can manifest itself in significant problems further down the line such as rebellious behaviour, depression or, as we find in our prisons and young offender institutions, criminality, which often starts as youth disorder.

The answer, in one word, is training. I understand that a module on dyslexia that has the backing of the sector has been prepared and is ready for incorporation in initial teacher training, but the Minister also indicated in her letter to me that the Department has commissioned new materials on specific learning difficulties, which will be available online in the spring. Will those materials form a mandatory part of the initial teacher training course, and will she consider the sector’s calls to incorporate the existing module from 2005 as a minimum requirement? She might be aware that the British Dyslexia Association has an online petition calling for the 2005 module to be used for teacher training; I think the BDA is seeking 100,000 signatures.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend mentioned people in prison and people with personal difficulties in life. I am sure that she, like me, has come across youngsters with behavioural problems at school that can be traced back to self-esteem problems due to difficulties with spelling, which in their case is dyslexia. That stress can be relieved early on by saying, “You have a condition that we can help you to cope with. It is not something you should be ashamed of or behave badly over; it is something that we can help with and that many other people experience.” If we can convey that to young people, we can probably avoid a lot of the problems in life that many of them suffer.

Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Early identification is vital. The earlier we can identify all special educational needs, not just dyslexia, the better, but we find that speech, language and communication disorders such as dyslexia often have the biggest effect on children’s self-esteem, and can often lead to problems such as youth disorder further down the line. The number of people in prison with speech, language and communication difficulties and dyslexia is anywhere from 60% to 80%. The noble Lord Ramsbotham is knowledgeable about the issue and speaks about it a lot. Much of the problem could be failure to diagnose special educational needs in our schools. We must ensure that children with a label get the right label, whether it involves dyslexia, behavioural problems, autism or whatever, rather than “naughty”, “lazy” or “disruptive”.

Kelvin Hopkins: To refer to my childhood, which was a long time ago, teachers regularly used to beat us on the back of the hand with rulers in those days. I was not beaten, because I was not dyslexic and was good at sums, but lots of my classmates were, simply because they had those sorts of problem.

Mrs Hodgson: That is a world we never want to go back to. Thankfully, that does not happen in our classrooms now, but what happens is that codes of conduct are given out. I saw it with my own son. He did not write down enough work from the board, so he came home with various punishments. The code of conduct was writing out the school rules. I got off the train from London one evening and walked into the house at 11 o’clock to find him still at the kitchen table writing out his punishment, the school rules. The punishment was given because the teacher thought he had not done enough work.

My son was 14 and had started at a new secondary school when we moved. I insisted that all the teachers at least knew that he was dyslexic. I was not asking for special treatment, just that they knew he was severely dyslexic and was statemented. I was assured that they would all be told. As I walked in and saw the punishment, I thought, “Either this is a very evil teacher, or he doesn’t realise my son is severely dyslexic.” I wrote a note to the teacher saying, “This is as far as my son got. I am stopping this punishment now. He is not going to do any more of these punishments. They must be proportionate to his ability.” It was like a child who came last in a sprint being forced to run a marathon. That was the equivalent of the punishment that he had been given.

A note came back the next day: “Very sorry, Mrs Hodgson, we had no idea your child was dyslexic.” That was unbelievable on many levels. The school was supposed to have told all his teachers that he had dyslexia, and it was obvious to anybody who knows anything about the condition that my son is dyslexic. That had not been picked up in him—a child in a new school. What if he had not been diagnosed in a previous school? At any stage in a child’s journey through school, teachers should be able to diagnose such disorders.

I know that we have plenty of time, but I will go back to the substance of my speech. The latest issue to present itself is the phonics screening that will now be required during children’s first years at school. I was more than a little annoyed to see in a departmental press release over the weekend that the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), referred to the fact that one in 10 11-year-olds could read no better than a seven-year-old as evidence that his favoured phonics scheme is needed, without mentioning that one in 10 11-year-olds have dyslexia.

Strangely, the same press release did not mention that two thirds of teachers who took part in the pilot disagreed that the check accurately assessed the decoding ability of pupils with special educational needs. That is why there are so many concerns about complete reliance on phonics as both a measure of ability and a teaching method. It is also crucial that children who fail the phonics test, as a dyslexic child almost certainly will, are not made to feel as though they have failed—although the test can be good, from the point of view that it identifies them. Appropriate remedial action, including testing for dyslexia, should be taken in a timely manner.

That brings me to the Government’s plans for the future of SEN provision, and the ability of those who will be expected to deliver it to do so. The Minister knows that I welcomed the Green Paper as a means of opening debate on SEN provision, and that I look forward to seeing the results of the consultation, as I know we all do. However, the concern throughout the sector is that young people with non-medical problems such as dyslexia might not warrant support when school action and school action plus are abolished, as very few dyslexic children are currently statemented. I sincerely hope that that will not be the case. I will welcome any assurance that the Minister can give us.

We then come to how support will be provided if a dyslexic pupil is deemed to need it. Local authority budgets are being stretched to breaking point right now. The proliferation of the academies and free schools desired by the Secretary of State will mean that few funds will be held centrally with which to sustain shared support services. I know that I have asked the Minister this before, but I hope that she will guarantee today that support for dyslexic students will not get worse before it gets better due to the austerity programme being imposed on local authorities, and that when the new system is fully up and running, the money will be there to back it.

I move to the end of students’ time in school. The Minister will know that I have concerns about the key stage 4 curriculum and examinations. I will not labour the point about the E-bac, but needless to say, it has been installed as the gold standard set of qualifications, despite the fact that it will exclude almost all young people with dyslexia, as they are usually not taught foreign languages, whether modern or ancient, for obvious reasons. On assessment, Ofqual confirmed in a press release today that it is implementing the changes to GCSEs that the Government told it to make—scrapping modular examinations, which allow students to break up their learning into more manageable chunks and sit exams as they go along, when the subject is fresh in their minds. Instead, from next year students will be required to learn for two years—a bit like when we sat our O-levels—and commit all of that learning to paper in one go. That intensity will pose a challenge for many children with SEN, but especially dyslexics, given the memory problems I mentioned.

The support that young people with dyslexia need to be able even to sit their exams, let alone do well in them, is also under threat. The Minister will, I hope, have seen my latest letter to her in which I drew her attention to an article by Jack Grimston in The Sunday Times on 20 November. He reports the concerns that school teachers have over the changes that the Joint Council for Qualifications has made to eligibility for access arrangements in examinations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North highlighted.

The changes will prevent bright pupils with dyslexia from getting extra time or a reader and a scribe in exams to mitigate their limited reading and writing abilities, which gives them a level playing field with their non-dyslexic peers. That will have a detrimental effect on the qualifications that they will be able to achieve. There are many bright pupils with dyslexia, as we have heard today, some of whom go on to doctorates in physics. They say that Einstein was dyslexic, and I could list many other examples. 

In a timed exam, the most intelligent young person is only ever as good as their ability to read the questions set and transfer the answers from their minds to the paper, which is why the most severely dyslexic pupil is given a reader and a scribe. In making the changes, the JCQ is limiting what intelligent dyslexics can achieve, and from my conversations with the sector, it appears to have done so without any consultation. I urge the Minister to look into the matter and intervene where necessary to ensure that such young people are not held back by their disability.

Finally, I understand from today’s Ofqual announcement that once the exams have been sat, dyslexics will be at a disadvantage yet again during marking, because the proportion of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in certain subjects is being increased following interventions from the Secretary of State. Even if a dyslexic pupil gets a reader and a scribe, whose spelling is the examiner marking?

Kelvin Hopkins: I am sorry to intervene once again on my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. The points she raises suggest that dyslexic pupils should be identified and the fact that a pupil is dyslexic recorded on the examination paper, so that allowances are made. I heard only today of a young woman who is highly intelligent in conversation and can come top of her class in most things, but has difficulty with writing due to her dyslexia. Every time she is tested orally, she does brilliantly, but when she is tested in writing, she has more difficulty.

Mrs Hodgson: I hope that the Minister will take up those other concerns with the JCQ and that compensations can be made in marking. We do not ask for favourable treatment for dyslexics, but for their disability to be recognised and accommodations made, so that there is a level playing field.

I have not set out to make political points today because the debate has been well informed and constructive, and I know that supporting young people with dyslexia is important to Members on both sides of both Houses. I sincerely hope that the Minister will commit to returning with her officials to look at the specific concerns raised today, and that she will take any necessary steps to mitigate, or indeed undo, the impact of what are the, I hope, unintended consequences that the various reforms and changes may have on the education and life chances of the estimated 750,000 young people in our schools and colleges who have dyslexia.

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